Continuing our serial of GeekMom Corrina Lawson’s steampunk adventure/mystery novel, The Curse of the Brimstone Contract:
In a Victorian London where magic fuels steam technology…
Joan Krieger dreams of revolutionizing fashion for this new, modernized world but a hidden enemy stalks her family’s clothing business, turning her dream into a nightmare.
When Joan is a witness to a client being murdered by magic, she turns to the only man who can help: Gregor Sherringford, consulting detective. Together, they become a formidable team but their investigation pulls aside a curtain of sorrow and secrets that threaten everything in Joan’s life. Only by risking her very soul can she uncover the truth, a truth that Gregor fears she may not survive.
In this chapter, Joan uncovers a bitter truth about her father’s madness, one that’s nearly impossible to digest. But, sorry, Joan, things are about to get worse.
Brimstone? Deal with the devil?
Joan went back to the word in the contract that had troubled her. Bright, shiny, cherished possession akin to life.
“A soul stealer,” she breathed. “This is a contract for my father to give up his soul to Roylott.”
She collapsed into the chair and, as it creaked, she noted it was quite the most comfortable chair she’d ever been in, except that it was far too big.
How strange to feel so comfortable when learning the ancient legends and bogeymen of her childhood were true. Now she knew what her father had been rambling on about. “Soul stealers.” She flung her arms in the air. “What is next? Will a golem haunt London for an encore?”
Gregor grimaced. “We can hope not.”
She put her head in her hands. “This is not the time for your odd sense of humor.”
“No.” He came around to her side of the desk and leaned against it, facing her. “But I have to say that, strictly speaking, your father’s soul was not stolen. It was contracted out.”
“A deal with the devil.” She closed her eyes again. Spots appeared before her eyes, as they had when she’d fainted in her father’s office. But this torment would stay with her. Magic could not defeat this knowledge nor erase it from her memory. “Is Roylott some sort of supernatural evil from the Christian hell?” She braced herself for an additional blow.
“Apologies. There, I was being metaphorical. He’s human, not the devil.”
“That’s some comfort.” She took a deep breath, releasing a small portion of her tension. “So, Roylott is a mage misusing magic?”
“A powerful mage who has turned to evil. The worst nightmare of those who study magic. Roylott is so powerful that he has managed to hide what he is for these many years, while slowly draining your father’s soul to gain power.”
“Power my father gave to him willingly. Why?” She pounded the desk. “For God’s sake, why would my father do such a thing?”
“What does the contract say?” Gregor said in a quiet whisper.
She bent to the words again. Now they all fell into place. “It says Roylott will use his mage ability to ensure Krieger & Sims will thrive. It guarantees that so long as bits of the soul come to Roylott, nothing will happen to the business.”
“This is the source of your father’s madness. His very existence has been chipped away, piece by piece. It’s why he reeks of magic.”
“Roylott has… This is…vile. Unspeakable.” She looked skyward. “Father, you are such a fool.”
Gregor stayed blissfully silent. She crossed her arms on the desk and let her head drop to rest on them. Her skull was beginning to pound.
“It is not literally unspeakable, as otherwise we couldn’t discuss it,” Gregor said.
She raised her head, ready to snap at him, but his expression was so bland that she leaned back in the chair and laughed. “My life is absurd.”
Her stomach picked that exact moment to rumble. As she rubbed her temples again, she tried to track how long it had been since she had eaten.
“Are you hungry?” Gregor snapped to attention.
“Of course, I am bloody hungry! All I have had in the past twenty-four hours has been a glass of brandy.”
His face fell, and he looked around the room as if expecting food to suddenly appear out of the air.
“Gregor, is there any food in this house?”
He straightened. “You know, I haven’t the faintest idea.” He shoved his hands into his pockets. “Quite. I will endeavor to find some sustenance for you, er, us.”
He swept out of the room before she could say another word, and she heard the heavy front door open and then close a minute later. He paced back into the room, his expression smug.
“I have sent someone to fetch us a hot meal.”
“Good.” Her stomach rumbled again. “Now, tell me, what is brimstone and why is it all over a contract to sell a soul?”
“Brimstone is a common name for the element sulfur. Though it usually has no odor, it can sometimes faintly smell like a match catching fire. Sulfur is also used in heating rubber to strengthen it, rubber that is then used for steam vehicle tires.”
“I hardly think that has anything to do with my father’s soul.”
“Using sulfur in rubber was what led to the discovery that brimstone could hold magical energy.”
Even tired and starved, her brain realized what he’d really said. “My gloves and Lady Grey’s scarf were dusted with brimstone.”
“Yes, and I would guess the cravat as well. They were bespelled to commit murder. Quite ingenious, though twisted.”
She rubbed her temples. “But why? The contract says Roylott will make the business thrive, but the murders killed our business, and now Roylott himself is out of a job. This makes no sense.”
None of it made sense. She wondered if she had been dreaming since Lady Grey’s death. Or, if she were dead or unconscious from breaking into the safe and imagining all this.
Gregor’s kiss, however, had seemed very real.
She stumbled to her feet as a loud thud echoed into the room.
“That’s only a knock at the front door. Become comfortable, Joan, that is our food.”
She moved from behind the desk, away from the hated contract and onto a lounge set under the window. The drapes were closed, but light entered through a slit in the curtains. She pulled them back to see the world had turned grey and murky while she’d slept and learned of horrible things.
A thick fog had settled from the ground to the second and third stories of the homes on the street. She could not see clearly past a few feet in front of the manor. Come dark, there would be no navigating the night without a powerful lantern.
And with the fog, there was no knowing exactly what time it was. I am trapped in a world of grey with no way out.
Gregor strode into the room. The odor of chicken, gravy and potatoes made her nearly weep with relief. He carried two steaming pies baked in cheap tin, set on a pewter tray that definitely was not cheap. The silver utensils were of similar quality.
She had no idea where the pies had come from so quickly and did not ask. The crust was flaky, full of flavor, and the peas, carrots, and chicken inside were piping hot. She set to eating, determined to at least do something that would make her feel better.
After a few moments of silence, Gregor pushed his nearly empty pie tin to the side. “I do feel much refreshed.”
He poured them glasses of liquid from a decanter set on a small round table in the corner.
“Is this brandy?” She took the glass he offered.
“Only a red wine, though, strictly speaking, we should drink white with chicken. But red is what we have.”
She sipped and was glad it didn’t burn as the brandy had. “Gregor, you have to back up for me. We spoke of selling souls and contracting souls, but we know Roylott is human, not the devil. So what is a soul? Some sort of magical element in a person?”
“You have just asked a question that the great philosophers of the world have been trying to answer since the dawn of time.” He settled himself into an armchair, hands in a steeple, just as he’d done when he’d heard her pleas to accept her case.
“You obviously know, since you know that soul stealing can be done. So tell me.”
She finished the pie and wiped her face, wishing she had a mirror to make certain gravy hadn’t splattered on the elegant dress.
“Each person seems to possess a life force,” he said, emphasizing each word. “Let’s say we are talking about you, as you are a powerful mage. Your body is infused with energy, absorbed through the sun. You are bursting with it. It’s beautiful and powerful.”
He paused, as if making sure she was still listening.
She blushed at the compliment. “I am following so far.”
“Good. I told you that mages can absorb solar energy and re-channel it, and that the waste product of this is mage coal. Well, there is another forbidden way to absorb energy: to take it from another person. That energy is exponentially more powerful and concentrated than solar energy.”
“Which is why someone would want to steal it.”
“It’s not so easy as all that. This life energy, this soul, as it’s called, is bonded to a person. In order for the energy to be useful to someone else, it must be given freely and a spell must be cast. Naturally, most people don’t wish to do that. Or, theoretically, it can be ripped from the person, but that requires more power than any mage has ever displayed.”
“And since most people believe that mages are only found among the upper classes and are uneducated in all that you are teaching me, most people would not understand how soul stealing works.”
Gregor nodded. “But somehow Roylott acquired not only the knowledge to become a powerful mage but also the way to properly acquire a soul. Hence, the contract.”
“And since my father loses some of his life force, literally, every time Roylott takes a piece of his soul, that accounts for his fits.” She sat back on the couch, frowning. She should be so angry. She was. But knowing the source of her father’s illness felt as if a huge weight had been removed from her shoulders. “Can my father recover? Could he be whole again?”
“He would have to spend years simply sitting in the sun to reacquire enough energy to heal what was lost. And if he was not a mage in the beginning, that would be impossible.” He paused. “I’m sorry, Joan. If he were a powerful mage, he would not have needed to sign the contract. I fear his condition is irreversible.”
“There’s nothing to be done for him?”
Gregor looked away and finished his glass of wine.
“Damn you, don’t lie to me, Gregor Sherringford. There is at least one other option.”
He stood and began pacing. “The only way to heal your father is for Roylott to voluntarily return what he took from him. But since returning your father’s soul could kill Roylott, I do not see him as giving it up, even if he’s arrested.”
She stood. “That’s the only result of all this? Roylott arrested and my father still an invalid?” She shook her head. “Krieger & Sims is destroyed irrevocably. Our business manager has committed at least two murders and will be exposed as someone who used magic to kill. Even if Inspector Davis and Colonel Moran do not shutter our doors forever, potential customers will be far too afraid to buy our clothing.”
“When you came to me, you asked me to solve Lady Grey’s murder. You said you must have answers. Now you have them.”
He held out his palm, flat, as if to emphasize that what he had given her was all he had to give.
“Answers.” Her shoulders sagged. “So I did. Emet is what you gave me.”
“The Hebrew word for truth.” She rolled her shoulders, remembering how she’d indulged in a long crying fit just last night. Grief was over. A task was at hand. “So, Roylott is in hiding? How do we catch him?”
“I was thinking that—”
A loud thud sounded in the hallway, from the direction of the front door. Gregor rushed out of the room, a pistol in his hand. She followed at his heels.
Sir August Milverton stood in the front doorway, a heavy cane in one hand, a gun in the other.